Swaddle the existential angst of Woody Allen in the baby fat of a John Hughes teen comedy and you get the post-post-adolescent “Stay Cool,” based on the supposition that life is always going to be high school — even 20 years after curing prom-night hangover. Indeed, it’s all about hangover of various sorts in this rather likable if tonally unfocused Polish brothers romp, which taps into the current hunger for goofball comedy — which may boost its B.O. prospects — while at the same time giving the genre a long, cool stare.
“Stay Cool” is the second project made as part of Michael and Mark Polish’s adventure in mini-studio-dom (the production machinery for their period comedy “Manure” was kept in place and rolled over into this pic). Inspired by such classic Hughes comedies like “Pretty in Pink” and “Sixteen Candles,” “Stay Cool” is about the very people who grew up on those ’80s films, principally Henry McCarthy (Mark Polish), a successful novelist who has returned to his hometown to deliver the graduation address at his former high school.
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Why someone who wrote a book called “How Lionel Got Me Laid” (Lionel, as in Ritchie) would be invited to deliver anything at any high school in America is one of ‘Stay Cool’s” mysteries. As is Henry’s motive for taking on the job: Considering the aggravation it causes him, via his old principal Marshall (Chevy Chase) and the dreaded Mrs. Leuchtenberer (a great Frances Conroy), it takes considerable suspension of disbelief to think he wouldn’t just quit.
But he does want to come home, not necessarily to see his wacky parents — played by a wonderfully frothy Dee Wallace and onetime “Family Ties” star Michael Gross — but to get back in touch with Scarlet Smith (Winona Ryder), the high school beauty who wrote “Stay cool” in his yearbook, and whom he never heard from again.
Pic fits somewhere between the ironic obscurity of “Twin Falls, Idaho” and “Northfork” and the relatively straight “The Astronaut Farmer” in the Polish brothers oeuvre. Henry’s reunion with Scarlet seems relatively casual at first, but as the story develops, we get the sense he’s been nursing a crush for 20 years — or perhaps he just begins to think he has. The more surreal qualities of Henry’s collision with his past crashes up against outright farce (“It’s a school night,” his mother clucks, as Henry heads out with Scarlet).
Henry is a mix of Allen-esque observer and emotional investor — he shakes his head at life’s inevitable frustrations and bewilderments, but makes reckless investments. At the same time, Polish’s performance is pretty one-note, as is that of Hilary Duff as the high school hottie who seems intent on providing Henry with both a social disease and a long prison sentence.
As might be expected, the comedy sidekicks are the cream: Sean Astin as Henry’s very good, very gay friend Big Girl is overtly fabulous without being too impolitic. Josh Holloway is terrific as a substance-abusing Peter Pan among an entire community of people who never grew up. Chase is funnier than he’s been in years.
Ryder seems to get lovelier with time, and unlike her anxiety-provoking performance in the recent Bret Easton Ellis adaptation “The Informers,” here she’s relaxed and perfectly cast as a girl most likely to succeed, who never managed to shake off her old boyfriend (Marc Blucas) or her old life. She adds an ambitiously melancholy element to a movie inclined toward the absurd andsmart-assed, the latter generously provided by Jessica St. Clair, who plays Scarlet’s girlfriend Darcy.
Good-looking pic was shot on the new Red-One camera by M. David Mullen.